In his 上神宗皇帝書 Su Shi opines on a permanent problem of Chinese governmental philosophy: the power distribution between centre and periphery or intra-capital and extra-capital officials. He comes up with his ideal strategy of having the two mutually constrain. That is crystallised in the following lines:

古者建國,使內外相制,輕重相權。 如周如唐,則外重而內輕。如秦如魏,則外輕而內重。 內重之弊,必有奸臣指鹿之患。外重之弊,必有大國問鼎之憂。

I tentatively translate:

The Ancients, when establishing a country, used inner and outer (officials) to control each other, thus holding the weak and strong in mutual balance! The Zhou and Tang (dynasties) had strong outer and weak inner officialdom; Qin and Wei had weak outer and strong inner officials. The blight of a strong inner officialdom is that there are necessarily treacherous officials passing a deer for a horse (like Zhao Gao, who doomed Qin). The ailment of strong outer officials lies in strong countries inquiring after the symbols of state power (with a mind to usurp it).


My problem is that 魏 is mentioned just this once and I have no sure way of knowing, whether it is 北魏、曹魏, or any of about a dozen less prominent 魏。

Su Shi‘s dictum became extremely prominent in the context of discussing 封建制 and 郡縣制 (loosely translated as feudal system and county-prefecture system respectively). I tried to look up that literature to assess which 魏 fits the bill. Wang Keyao‘s article on these systems of government states that all of the 魏晋南北朝 featured a weak monarchical power (which does not completely imply 內輕)。

So, is there a way to be reasonably sure, which 魏 Su Shi meant?

Or can we at least find out, which 魏 other literati of imperial China understood him to mean?

2 Answers 2


魏 is referring to 北魏。北魏 is the government which 苏轼 was referring to as 北魏 successfully reestablished 中央集权 (外轻内重) and mimicked the 儒法 system employed by 秦。

I do want to note however, any 魏 which fulfills the 外轻而内重 quality can suffice as an example for modern studies of "feudal system" and "county-prefecture system". This quote is made more famous by the fact that the last 科举 in 1904 asked an identical open-ended question "周唐外重内轻,秦魏外轻内重,各有得论” 。I've copied a portion of that year's winner's response as follows; "魏文帝侵削诸侯、有同幽絷设防、辅监国之官以伺察之、其势固莫能为乱也。然再传而后微弱益甚、司马氏父子遂攘其臂而夺之"。The 魏 referred here is 曹魏。

  • So, although the 科舉 obviously alluded to Su Shi (who, you say meant 北魏)the 狀元 nevertheless talked about 曹魏? Correct? Things of this kind are exactly why I asked! I have been translating some exams. Some answers only make sense for 北魏、others only for 曹魏。How do we know Su Shi meant 北魏?
    – Ludi
    Feb 21 at 16:09
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    @Ludi Strictly speaking, 曹魏 is too short and never the only power of its time; the majority of 曹魏 is overlapped with the Three Warring Kingdoms. Note that 东吴 was not officially defeated until 晋 which occurred post 曹魏。The 内重 of 曹魏 is more the result of the need of wartime and less about deliberate choice to do so during a more "peaceful era". 北魏 is particularly noted for its deliberate choice to utilize certain 秦 policies which is why it is mentioned along with 秦 here.
    – summer7
    Feb 21 at 18:45

如魏,則外輕而內重。 內重之弊,必有奸臣指鹿之患

it referred to 北魏、東魏、西魏 collectively; briefly


高歡 . . . 另立孝文帝曾孫元善見為帝,建都鄴城(今河北臨漳),史稱「東魏」

西魏(535-557). . . 由宇文泰擁立孝文帝孫子元寶炬為帝,與高歡所掌控的東魏對立

the dismiss of 北魏 is due to a general 高歡 “selected” a royal family member (元善見) to ascend the throne, another general 宇文泰 ”found” another royal family member (元寶炬) as the emperor; that the début of 東魏 & 西魏

東魏(534-550). . . 孝靜帝 . . . 被高澄之弟高洋所廢

the emperor 孝靜帝 of 東魏 was “dethroned” by 高洋 (son of 高歡)

西魏(535-557). . . 宇文泰之侄宇文護迫西魏恭帝禪讓

the emperor 恭帝 of 西魏 was forced to abdicate, let 宇文護 (nephew of 宇文泰 ) to be the emperor




clear, 高歡、宇文泰、高洋 & 宇文護 could be viewed as treacherous officials (奸臣)

古者建國,使內外相制,輕重相權。 如周如唐,則外重而內輕。如秦如魏,則外輕而內重。 內重之弊,必有奸臣指鹿之患。外重之弊,必有大國問鼎之憂。

your translation is good 😸 well, i would annotate further:

[when] the ancient people (古者) establish a country (建國)

made (使) [the system that] the central administration (內) [and] the regional administrations (外) [were] mutually restrained (相制), slight and important (輕重) [were] mutually measured [相權]

for example (如), [the dynasty of] 周 (1046 bc – 256 bc) and [the dynasty of] 唐 (618 to 907); the fiefdoms were so strong (則外重) and (而) the central governments was weak (內輕)

for example (如), [the dynasty of] 秦 (221 bc - 207 bc) and [the dynasties of] 魏 {北魏(386-535)、東魏(534-550)、西魏(535-557)} ,the local governments were weak (則外輕) and (而) the central government was so weighty (內重)

the disadvantage of a weighty central government (內重之弊), surely, there would be threats caused by treacherous statesman [like 趙高 pointing a deer] (必有奸臣指鹿之患)

the disadvantage of strong fiefdoms (外重之弊),surely, there would be worrisome that great fiefdom seeking for the throne (必有大國問鼎之憂)

have fun :)

  • How do we conclude that Su Shi meant 北魏 (which has also been my assumption)?
    – Ludi
    Feb 21 at 16:11
  • My own reason for the assumption was that I have seen (but sadly not yet obtained) a book titled « 二重奏:北魏前期政治制度». So, I made that connection.
    – Ludi
    Feb 21 at 16:40
  • @ludi, well, the legend of 指鹿爲馬 implied the "treacherous statesman" (奸臣) had absolute power in court, without rivals. in 曹魏(220-266), 司馬懿 had resistences (the clan of mr 曹 & the clan of mr 夏侯), and several regional generals’ uprisings “駐守揚州的地方軍事長官王凌(司馬懿時期)、毌丘儉(司馬師時期)、諸葛誕(司馬昭時期)先後起兵反抗” zh.wikipedia.org/zh-hk/曹魏 Feb 22 at 10:44
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    @ludi, that, i prefer to interpret 魏 as 北魏 and/or 東魏、西魏. cause 高歡、宇文泰 did whatever they want, without any hassles 😼 imo Feb 22 at 10:48

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